By midmorning Tuesday, Naval Academy Midshipman Kevin Saxton had been awake for eight hours, tackled an obstacle course, survived an endurance run and beat his classmates with pugil sticks.
Sweat dripping down his face as he scarfed down trail mix, Saxton said his day at the annual academy Sea Trials was already a success — a sweaty, sandy, muddy good time with his band of classmates in Annapolis.
"It's a lot of fun. Pretty physically challenging," said Saxton, a systems engineering major from Grand Rapids, Mich., who aspires to be a Marine Corps pilot.
Beginning before dawn and continuing into the evening, more than 1,000 academy freshmen, or "plebes," slopped through mud, hoisted cans of ammunition over their heads and carried telephone poles across fields. Upperclassmen guided the men and women through two dozen stations as part of the trials, an annual ritual that closes out the plebe year with a test of physical strength and mental toughness.
Midshipman David Piekut, a senior who served as Sea Trials commander, said the day helps young midshipmen hone their teamwork skills. He also hopes it helps them realize they're only limited by their drive to succeed.
"Although your body has limits, you can push those limits," said Piekut, who will graduate next week with a degree in computer science and be commissioned a Marine Corps officer.
Piekut said when he went through the four-week summer Leatherneck training — a requirement for aspiring Marine officers — he drew on his own Sea Trials experience to make it through.
On Tuesday, he oversaw the upperclassmen running the Sea Trials stations, checking safety precautions and encouraging the midshipmen to stick with it despite extreme fatigue.
With sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s, organizers were concerned about heat-related illnesses. Upperclassmen handed out 3,200 bananas and urged plebes to stay hydrated with water and Gatorade. A midday run over the steep Naval Academy Bridge over the Severn River was switched to a walk because of the heat.
Sea Trials is a highly anticipated event for plebes, many of whom see it as a final test of will to prove their worth in the military. The trials are modeled after the Marine Corps Crucible and the Navy Battle Stations training exercises for recruits. The first run of Sea Trials at the academy was held in 1998.
Midshipman Kelly Salander, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, said it wasn't hard to keep her plebes in the 17th Company motivated. "This is their last hurrah," she said.
"This is what we love to do. This is what we signed up for," said Midshipman Brian Pagliai, a political science major and aspiring Marine from Kirksville, Mo.
Pagliai and his mates had just finished paddling inflatable boats out into the Severn River, jumping into the water, swimming around the boats and climbing back in to paddle back to shore.
"These guys make it so easy," Pagliai said in praise of his classmates.
At another station, midshipmen did "buddy rushes," crawling up a hill in pairs while wearing flak jackets and carrying mock rifles.
At other stations, plebes were tested on swimming skills, completed a timed half-mile run and carried inflatable boats over their heads. They performed seemingly endless repetitions of sit-ups, push-ups, squats and bench presses with the mock rifles. They crawled under barbed wire and did "Smurf jacks," an arduous cross between a jumping jack and a squat.
"I'm past the stage where you're tired," declared Midshipman Greg Boyer, a physics major from Madison, Wis.
"You just keep pushing through it," said Midshipman Andrew Jevitt, an electrical engineering major from Merritt Island, Fla.
Though his face was dirty and dripping from the "wet and sandy" station that sent him crawling through mud and performing sit-ups in the Severn River, Jevitt proclaimed the day was great. "You just have fun with it."